The Wild Women of Wicklow and Rathnew
They came with bad reputations from tough areas like Colley Street, Strand Street and Irishtown in Wicklow and from the nearby village of Rathnew. They were all from the poorer classes of the area in the 19th century and married to sailors and fishermen in Wicklow and farm labourers in the village. These women could hold their own in close combat with friends, neighbours, strangers and family, male or female. In one particular case matters ended in a manslaughter charge and a prison sentence. Two neighbourhood women engaged in a fight and one died as a result of her injuries. Usually feuds and fights arose between the women and the dispute was sorted out with the aid of flying bricks and stones. These were hard drinking amazons who occupied the curtained off snugs of the of the local early houses and public houses of the area. This was considered quite shocking in genteel Victorian society. With a considerable quantity of drink taken they were willing to take on any and all-comers whom they frequently challenged. When a crowd assembled outside a drinking house to watch the proceedings, they were challenged also. The local Royal Irish Constabulary, when called on to quieten the disorder, usually ended up brawling with the drunken harridans, assailed by fists, feet, foreheads and teeth. At festival time, such as Wicklow Regatta, a mass brawl became part of the celebration. In one case a resident Magistrate expressed his shock at the fact that a group of women from Rathnew village could go on a week long bender and then start a bloody conflict as a part of the festivities. Prison sentences and fines did little to rehabilitate the combative females. Fights would take place, bricks and stones would fly and in another instance a woman was seen to drag a man up the road by his hair, by a furious harpie, who wanted him to defend her honour, against the man who had made insulting verbal comments about her ladylike qualities.
The notable, celebrated and notorious:
Two well known combative females in the district were ‘Nance’ and ‘Sal.’
‘Nance’ was a ‘holy terror’ in drink according to one Resident Magistrate she appeared before and as ‘the celebrated Nance’ while before another. The Wicklow native did not believe in accompanying the constables quietly to the barracks when there was the option of a good fracas. It took the coaxing tips of the batons of five constables to ensure she went to the barracks on one occasion. She went up before the magistrate charged with drunk and disorderly, brawling in public, assault on the constables and tearing one of their uniforms. ‘Nance’ was on the dry during her internment in Wicklow Gaol. During another case she took exception to comments made by a witness against her and became ‘animated.’ This resulted in a solicitor ‘vacating his seat in indecent haste’ to avoid her flailing limbs. Another time, while seven sheets in the wind, she staggered over to Irishtown in search of her ex-husband. Forgetting which house he lived in she banged on every door and window in the vicinity. When the constables arrived the brawling started. Whenever ‘Nance’ appeared before the Resident Magistrate she would usually say a few words in her defence, beginning with ‘your honour honey-‘
‘Sal’ was the ‘noted,’ ‘notable,’ ‘celebrated,’ and ‘notorious Sal’ during her long and violent career on the sauce. She was from the village of Rathnew and never forgot where she came from. In fact she returned once a year to kick off an annual riot there. Long suffering Sgt. Manning and his constable had the dubious task of apprehending her and bringing her to Rathnew R.I.C. station, a stone’s throw (no pun intended) from the local boozers. It may as well have been a hundred miles considering the time it took to subdue the ‘veritable amazon’ and take her into custody. R.I.C. men in other stations around the county had a similar problem with her. Where ‘Sal’ was concerned there was no point in going quietly when a riot would suffice. Physical conflict was a required right of passage whenever she was apprehended. Usually, over a career of some 30 years, ‘Sal’ would appear on double drunk and disorderly charges as she was ossified when appearing before the magistrate, and was highly agitated at the same time. An assault charge was either before the court or soon would be once she arrived at the building.
‘Sal’ in action:
One particular case gives a good demonstration of the impact of drinking to excess on both ‘Sal’ and those around her. The date is 1899 and ‘Sal’ was up on 3 drunk and disorderly charges. There were other charges laid as well, including being ‘beastly drunk,’ being ‘almost naked,’ ‘attempting to break into a public house,’ and at the same time, having failed to do this ‘disturbing the peace’ by issuing a challenge to any or all of the onlookers. The crowd which had gathered were mostly male and contained some hard nuts, none of which were willing take on ‘Sal.’
‘Sal’ and the tramp:
One particular day in Wicklow Town, a tramp named Comerford was chasing the law abiding citizens up and down the Main Street with an open cut throat razor. He passed ‘Sal’ who was standing in a shop doorway quietly smoking a cigarette. He stopped and demanded a cigarette from her. Witha steel glint in her eye and with the aid of unparliamentary language she told him where to go and what to do when he got there. The enraged tramp promptly kicked ‘Sal’ in the stomach. The next time ‘Sal’ was apprehended by a constable she gave him a kick in the stomach that Bruce Lee would have been proud of. ‘Sal’ was nothing if not a quick learner. When taken before the magistrate she declared ‘he could not have been badly hurt, I was not wearing shoes at the time!’ When she arrived in Wicklow Gaol to start her sentence she had familiar company, Comerford of the cut throat razor was serving his sentence at the same time.
Riots in the village:
‘Sal,’ when kicking off her annual riot in the village, would attack the nearest person to her once she had imbibed enough drink to gear up to combat mode. She was not particular and once knocked her brother-in-law out with a haymaker, as he was the one standing beside her at the time. Another year she attacked a street dancer and laid her low. Anyone unlucky to be in the vicinity and looking at her in the wrong way quickly became a victim of her formidable fists and feet. ‘Sal’ was quick to resist all attempts to pacify her and was even quicker with a right or left hook, as many constables testified to afterwards.
A Long Career:
‘Sal’ began her career by wrecking her father’s house when he informed her that he had no money to give her for drink. Every piece of china and glass in the house was broken by ‘Sal’ in a furious temper. This was in 1875.
All Tied Up:
Many times during her 30 years of hard drinking ‘Sal’ had to be removed from the courthouse to have her legs tied together by the constabulary as they were considered weapons of mass destruction, the Resident Magistrate being unwilling to have such lethal limbs at liberty. So it was for ‘Sal’ when appearing before the Bench for the last time. She was again removed, having become ‘animated,’ to have her legs tied together, before being brought in to face the magistrate for the last time. ‘Sal’ was, like ‘Nance,’ one of those people who by their actions or intent, became a local character and guaranteed their onlookers entertainment of a sort, as long as they kept their distance.